1 · 31 January 95
various: Higher Learning
The first question I usually ask about a soundtrack is whether the thing it is a soundtrack to really deserved to have a soundtrack released. This is not necessarily an obvious question, and is one that, judging by the soundtracks that get released these days, isn't asked very often. Just because a film had music in it doesn't mean that anybody would be liable to leave the theater muttering "Man, that film had great music! Let's go by the CD store and see if they have the soundtrack out." To earn a soundtrack, a movie ought to really make use of its music. Harold and Maude, for example, may be the quintessential soundtrack movie, as Cat Stevens' songs are integral to the movie (and, when you've seen it as many times as I have, vice versa).
Of course, the irony is that because Harold and Maude was released in the dark ages before mankind had fully mastered the art of cross-marketing, there never was a soundtrack released for it. And, to make matters worse, I haven't seen Higher Learning, so I can't tell you how integral the music here is to the film. I bought this soundtrack because, frankly, I buy anything that has music by Tori Amos on it. Luckily, I have a second question that I ask about soundtracks, which can be invoked here. Source aside, how does the album stand up as a compilation? That is, supposing you have no particular attachment to the film (my case precisely), is there any reason you should be interested in the soundtrack?
As with all compilations, this question has two sorts of answers. The first is for dedicated fans of one or more of the artists represented, which in this case are: Ice Cube, Me'Shell NdegeOcello, Mista Grimm, Raphael Sandiq of Tony! Toni! Tone!, Tori Amos, OutKast, Rage Against the Machine, The Brand New Heavies, Liz Phair, Shane, Eve's Plum and Stanley Clarke. If you live and die by any of these people, then you will be very interested to know that none of the songs on this album appear to be otherwise available at the moment. Tori Amos fans are particularly encouraged to pay attention, as Tori has two songs here.
For people whose buy/not-buy decision wasn't made by reading the artist list, though, this soundtrack's prospects are much more uncertain. Musically speaking, calling this compilation of songs "stylistically diverse" is being kind. "Incoherent" is more accurate. Indeed, it's hard for me to imagine that there are any significant numbers of people whose tastes span the full range covered here. Do you like slinky R&B? How about rap metal? Jazz? Wailing Curve-like dream-thrash? Barbiturate folk? Lethargic drug-rap? A deconstructed piano cover of REM's "Losing My Religion"? If you answered "yes" to all of these, then this just may be the soundtrack for you. For most people, however, I rather suspect that not only will you not like everything here, you'll find yourself programming out at least half of it on the grounds and it's not the sort of music you wish to listen to in your own valuable spare time.
For me, in fact, I programmed out everything but Tori, Eve's Plum, Rage Against the Machine and Stanley Clarke after the first listening, and Stanley and RATM got the axe after the second. Rap and R&B simply aren't my thing, the Liz Phair song just reminds me how much better I liked her first album than her second one, and Clarke's jazz I find merely inoffensive. This leaves me, admittedly, with three songs I really like. If you've heard Tori's version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" you know about what to expect from "Losing My Religion". "Butterfly", Tori's other song, is yet another in her long list of eminently worthy non-album tracks. And if you like the female-vocals-wailing-over-surging-atmospheric-guitars aesthetic of which the lamented Curve were, until their recent dissolution, perhaps the standard bearers, then "Eye", the Eve's Plum track, is arresting.
But, unless you've dedicated as large a fraction of your income to CD buying as I have, three songs out of thirteen is a pretty low yield. You might find that you like a different three songs than I did, but the point remains. As a compilation for general consumption, this is a mess.
various: My So-Called Life
I am sure I will always have strongly mixed feelings about this soundtrack, as well. On the one hand, My So-Called Life is unquestionably my favorite television program ever produced, and the only one that has ever made me question my assumption that TV couldn't produce true Art. To the extent that this CD reminds me of a few brief months of transcendent Thursday nights, I will cherish it like little else.
On the other hand, this album was released only two days before the airing of the final episode of MSCL's foreshortened first season, with the chances of the show ever returning reckoned to be heart-breakingly slim, and I'm not likely to forget the pain of that, and the cripplingly bitter disgust with American network television that it engenders in me.
The actual content of the "soundtrack" pushes on both feelings. On the positive side, the music from the opening credits is included, and this minute of quasi-U2 quasi-instrumental has come to elicit an astonishing range of emotions from me. Whatever its independent musical worth, what it says to me is "My So-Called Life is about to start", and there are few phrases that I find as powerful. Also included are Juliana Hatfield's "Make It Home", a quiet, haunting piece which was the centerpiece of the Christmas episode (in which she appeared), and Buffalo Tom's "Soda Jerk", which they also performed in an episode.
On the negative side, though, are several things. First, as much as I loved the show, the isolated instances where music was of central importance were more the exceptions than the rules. I couldn't have told you where eight of these eleven songs appeared in the show if somebody on the net hadn't painstakingly compiled a reference list. One of them is playing in Jordan's car when Angela stops to talk to him in the parking lot. The others are similarly peripheral. Even in the episode that revolves loosely around a Buffalo Tom gig, the song that the show really lingered on was "Late at Night", not "Soda Jerk". So, except for the first and last songs on the disc, none of this stuff reminds me of the show in the way I keep wanting it to.
As a generic compilation, I can't muster much real enthusiasm for it. The line-up (Juliana, Buffalo Tom, Sonic Youth, Further, Madder Rose, Afghan Whigs, Archers of Loaf, The Lemonheads, Frente! and Daniel Johnston) is pretty credible, but nobody contributes anything especially noteworthy or startling, and the overall effect is that of thirty-five minutes of generic "alternative" music, which isn't even a very generous portion. What the producers expect to gain from releasing it is unclear. I bought it as an act of support for the show, but anybody dedicated enough to the show to buy a CD just to have a digital copy of the theme song has probably already sent ABC a bucket of invective pleading with them to keep the show going lest Western civilization finally sink the last inch into muddy, inhumanly commercial Melrose Place oblivion. And if the idea was to use the soundtrack to entice new viewers to the show, the two-day overlap in the active lives of the album and the show was probably not quite adequate. The fact that this soundtrack comes only a month or two on the heels of one for Melrose Place doesn't help anything, either. The MP soundtrack was incessantly hyped on the show itself and has a more impressive-looking cast. Melrose Place and My So-Called Life also occupy completely opposite positions both on the scale of artistic quality, and on the Neilsen ratings. Guess which soundtrack will sell more?
And guess which minute of music I'm going to go drown in to comfort myself?
various: This Is Fort Apache
Juliana Hatfield, Buffalo Tom and the Lemonheads all also appear on this non-soundtrack compilation of recordings from Boston's Fort Apache studio, released to celebrate Fort Apache's new development deal with MCA Records. The artist list is heavily weighted toward Boston locals and associates: Cold Water Flat, Dinosaur Jr., Belly, The Lemonheads, The Walkabouts, Buffalo Tom, Throwing Muses, Sebadoh, Radiohead, Juliana Hatfield, Billy Bragg, Treat Her Right and Come. As far as availability, the Cold Water Flat, Lemonheads, Buffalo Tom, Throwing Muses, Sebadoh, Radiohead, Treat Her Right and Come songs are all just album tracks. Dinosaur Jr., Belly, Juliana and Billy Bragg's songs are single b-sides, and the Walkabouts' "Murdering Stone" is otherwise unavailable.
It's a pretty impressive collection, actually. As a representative cross-section of the low-key brand of alternative guitar rock that Boston's music scene has centered on for some time, it serves quite satisfactorily. The continuum from Cold Water Flat to Buffalo Tom to the Lemonheads to Juliana to Throwing Muses to Belly to Come is pretty smooth, and describes a sort of circle. Buffalo Tom's Bill Janovitz's brother Paul is in Cold Water Flat. Evan Dando of the Lemonheads appeared on Juliana Hatfield's old band the Blake Babies' records, and she on his. Lou Barlow, of Sebadoh, was in Dinosaur Jr. for a while. Tanya Donelly, of Belly, was in Throwing Muses. How Billy Bragg came to be involved with the studio I'm not entirely sure, but my girlfriend and I saw him in concert the day after he recorded the track here, "Sulk", and she grew up with Come's producer.
More important than the literal interconnections, though, the songs here are stylistically connected. If you like two or three of these songs, or two or three of the artists listed, most of the rest of the material is the sort of music you'd probably like. You might not actually like all the songs, but you won't feel like hitting Next the moment they come on (Treat Her Right's bluesy interlude being the one possible exception). And unless you already know most of these bands, the chances of your being introduced to something new you like seem pretty good to me. I bought Cold Water Flat and Come albums on this disc's urging, and count myself well-goaded. If you end up buying albums by all the people you like here, you may not end up listening to this compilation itself that often eventually, but that seems to be a largely unavoidable occupational hazard of being a compilation.
The one thing I will say against This Is Fort Apache, in the interest of objectivity, is that the packaging is terrible. I understand the urge people must feel to do something new, rather than just meekly shoving a booklet into a jewel case, but I can't think of many cases where I've bought CDs in alternate formats and not wished they'd just gone with a jewel case instead. The cardboard package this one comes in feels cheap and flimsy, and has trouble asserting its right to its own width on my shelf. It also does the one thing I consider most unpardonable in a CD package, by putting the CD in a sleeve instead of on a spindle, making it essentially impossible to remove the disc without getting fingerprints on the data-bearing underside. I know, intellectually, that CDs aren't really terribly vulnerable to damage by fingerprint, but viscerally it pains me to have to scrabble at the music surface in order to pry the disc loose. The designer in me rages each time I have to. I guess I could put the disc in a spare case and shelve the original packaging beside it, but somehow that feels to me like I'm treating the symptom, not the problem.